Interview with Karol Ander – perceptions of the communist era in Czech Republic

During the field trip to Prague we had the opportunity to interview a student attending an event to commemorate the 65th
anniversary of February 1948 when the communist party took over power.  On asked what his perceptions were on communism, this is what he had to say.

“That is a question I cannot answer in a few sentences.  It’s a very sensitive issue for anybody.  I have an opinion of mine, however I did not live through the era when the communists were in power so all that I got is the text books and the stuff I study myself and the people that I talk to about former regime and while the communist regime did a lot of bad things to this country, to the people and we have a very nasty legacy thanks to the communists in here and the society today which is not only what I think but it’s pretty clear the Society today in here is very divided on the subject of the former communist regime and the problem is that there is no effort to open the subject under public level.  Nobody really has managed to find any tools on how to debate on this subject and that’s one of the main problems I think”.

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‘Eastern Bloc’ Communist Countries Comparison

A comparison of communist countries allows the researchers to have a better understanding of the effects of communism and the knowledge help approach interviews more effectively.

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“The comparison is fantastic on various levels.  Primary level is the violence at the very end of the regime whereas the Czechoslovak is closely bound to the ideology of non-violence and brotherhood”  [….]  “We don’t have to compare only violence and nonviolence, not only civil rights and religions rights but also can compare things like drug culture and everyday life.  But this is something we have to do now”  (Dr Michal Pullman [Contemporary History Lecturer at the Charles University, Faculty of Arts] in response to a question on the comparison between Romania and Czechoslovakia)

However during the interviews others felt it was too vast a subject and to do a comparison would be difficult because of several factors such as the size of the countries, and the population “So I agree that those regimes, there were some common features based on ideology. Communist ideology was definitely more universal”[…..]  I think to find parallels and differences is a good thing, but it’s not so easy to say Czechoslovakia was like Poland and was different to Romania.” (Dr. Oldrich Tuma)

Quick overview of some Eastern Bloc communist countries

Country Communism infiltration Architecture Revolutions
Czechoslovakia1948 – 1989 Democratically elected HistoricalModernismCubism Jan 1968 Prague SpringNov-Dec  1989 Velvet Revolution
Romania1947 – 1989 Falsified election results Communist-influencedPower related Romanian Revolution (series of riots and protests in Romania in December 1989
Bulgaria1946 – 1990 Coup d’etat on existing government Principles of Totalitarian architecture, representativeness and impressiveness, were combined with classical architectural forms i.e. hotel “Balkan”, the Central Shopping Mall, the Communist Party Building October 1989 Enviromental demonstration in Sofia
Poland1947 – 1989 Rigged election results April – September  1988 (Fall of Communism strike)
Hungary 1949 – 1989 Soviet intervention allowed  communist control after coalition government had been formed. Oct-Nov 1956 uprising

War Crimes

“I think everyone was a victim of the communist regime. Even the communists were victims of the regime; their life was deformed by it; they had to lie, they had to muddle through it. So I think that just for numbers of repressions…repressions based on imprisonment and executions, perhaps Czechoslovakia is not such an exception if compared to Hungary or Eastern Germany” (Dr Oldrich Tuma –Director of  Institute of contemporary study)

In Poland, repressions affected up to 400, 000 people. During 1944-1953, military courts sentenced 70,097 people for crimes against the state (any alleged anti-regime activity or sentiment). 20,000 prisoners died due to harsh condition in prisons. Furthermore, 6,000,000 Polish citizens were classified as suspected members of a “reactionary or criminal element” and subjected to investigation by state agencies. The repressions were meant to scare the common people and get rid of any anti-communist opponents. Often the accusations and sentences were exaggerated or fabricated to speed up the process.

In Bulgaria those who didn’t adhere to the strict Soviet policies were marginalised and denied access to educational, personal and job opportunities.  All religious activity was severely restricted or banned apart from the which later became infiltrated by communist activities.  Over 90 000 dissidents were eliminated via expulsions, arrests and killings between 1948-49.

Hungary had the harshest dictatorship in Europe with over 50 000 women & girls raped.  Approximately 350,000 Hungarian officials and intellectuals were removed  from 1948 to 1956. Were many were arrested, tortured, imprisoned in concentration camps or were executed.

“Even in Czechoslovakia it is hard to say how many victims of the communist regime were…. We know exactly something like 250 people got sentenced to get executed for political reasons… it’s not such a great number” (Dr Michal Pullman – Contemporary History Lecturer at the Charles University, Faculty of Arts))

Exile prisons such as the one in Pitesti, Romania were created to re-educate their political prisoners using violent and degrading methods known today as ‘the Pitesti Phenomenon’.

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‘Eastern Bloc’ Central and Eastern Europe Communist Countries

‘Eastern Bloc’ refers to the former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, generally the Soviet Union and the countries of the Warsaw Pact.  These countries include Czechoslovakia, Romania, East Germany, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary.  The term Communist Bloc was used to denote the groups of states associated with the Soviet Union.

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European Communist Countries (sourced 22 april 2013)

These European countries experienced communism and their dictators relied on spectacle in order to create and maintain their citizen’s compliance to their communist ideology and used fear, oppression, arrests and killings to suppress the public but in the end mass revolts helped restore democracy. “Whoever becomes the ruler of a city that is accustomed to freedom and does not destroy it can expect to be destroyed by it, for it can always find a pretext for rebellion in the name of its former freedom” (Debord 2009:113).

“Communist states claim to be guided by a specific law of interpretations and goals  – these are Marxism-Leninism” (Wesson 1978:13) and there is quite a lot of similarities within these countries during the periods they experienced communism.  These similarities include totalitarian rule, dictatorship, food shortages and terrible war crimes.

Communist societies are very militaristic and include long periods of military duty, glorification of military heroism, cult of leadership and of violence and loyalty is the basic virtue (Wesson 1978:12-13). 

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The Dancing Building

The dancing building was designed by the Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunić in co-operation with the renowned Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry.

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The building was designed in 1992 and completed in 1996 and it continues to fuel the debate about blending traditional architecture with progressive design. The building’s method of twisting concrete and steel together had never before been tried in Europe or elsewhere.    The non-traditional design was controversial at the time because it stands out among the Baroque, Gothic and Art Nouveau buildings for which Prague is famous.

Dancing Building Prague

The dancing building is set on a property of great historical significance as its site was the location of a house destroyed by the U.S. bombing of Prague in 1945. The plot and structure lay dilapidated until 1960 when the area was cleared. The neighbouring plot was co-owned by the family of Václav Havel who spent most of his life there. As early as 1986 (during the Communist era) V. Milunić, then a respected architect in the Czechoslovak milieu, conceived an idea for a project at the place and discussed it with the then little-known dissident Václav Havel.  A few years later, during the Velvet Revolution Havel became a popular leader and was subsequently elected as Czechoslovak president. The then Czech president, Václav Havel, who lived for decades next to the site, had avidly supported this project, hoping that the building would become a center of cultural activity.

Gehry originally named the house Fred and Ginger (after the famous dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers  as the house resembles a pair of dancers) but was later “afraid to import American Hollywood kitsch to Prague”, so refused his own idea.  The building however is now seen as a work of art adding value to the cityscape of Prague.

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Obecni Dum/The Municipal House-Prague

ORIGINS / HISTORY

The Municipal House (Czech: Obecní dům) is a major civic landmark and concert hall in Prague, and an important building in architectural and political history in the Czech Republic.

Its origins lie in Czech nationalism.  Its building was opposed at the time by the German minority living in Prague.

The building was commissioned by the city on an odd-shaped lot and was built at the height of the Art Nouveau movement between 1905 and 1911 after a design by the Czech architects Antonin Balsanek and Osvald Polivka, and decorated  by many of Bohemia’s greatest painters, sculptors, and the best interior decorators in Prague at the time.  Construction started in 1905 and it opened in 1912.

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Its critics call it fancy,  lacking substance and a bourgeois self-promotion.  They feel the style is too market-oriented and Its origins lie in propaganda, advertising, and public relations and cannot be taken seriously as art.

Obecni Dum stands on the old site of what was once called King’s Court, a former residence of King Wenceslas IV, who had new fortifications built in the area to protect Prague. One part of these fortifications can be found next to the Municipal House. This dark tower is called Powder Tower (Prasna Brana). It was a former storage place for gunpowder.

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Today there is an incredible contrast between the Municipal House and the Powder Tower. Obecni Dum on the one hand is this magical place with beautiful detail while the tower is seemingly holding tight to the darker elements of history from the 14th century.

Obecni Dum is of immense cultural importance  as it was the site of the proclamation of the Czechoslovak Republic in October 1918 and was the site for meetings between dissidents including Vaclav Havel and the outgoing communist leadership in November 1989.

When the former Czechoslovakia overthrew its Communist government in 1989, the economy was in shambles.  There was very little money for services, infrastructure or economic development.  Yet President Vaclav Havel chose to spend millions to refurbish the Obecni Dum because he saw the restoration of the building as fundamental to the revival of the nation. This signified that the country was once again free, and in control of its own destiny.  This building has become a Prague landmark and serves as a national symbol.

ASSOCIATED MOVEMENTS

The yellow structure combines French Beaux-Arts with Viennese Secessionism.  The Art Nouveau structure is an artifact of the Czech nationalism of the time and carries a wealth of ornaments. The main facade features a large ceramic half-dome mosaic above the entrance, homage to Prague, by Karel Špillar. On either side are allegorical sculpture groups representing The Degradation of the People and The Resurrection of the People by Ladislav Šaloun, while the remainder of the rich decoration was done by Josef Mařatka, František Úprka and others, with light stands designed by Karel Novák. Inside there are murals by the famous Alfons Mucha, Jan Preisler and Max Švabinský, all of this on nationalist themes.

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The large ceramic half-dome mosaic above the entrance of Obecni Dum

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Inside the Obecni Dum building (ceiling)

Most of the styles used where dramatic applications of every conceivable material that can be found. The art concentrates on Czech ‘Symbolism and Cubism’ two unique movements which have yet to meet an appropriate level of appreciation in the West.

Lately as a site it is regularly enjoyed by the public for its café, restaurant, exhibition spaces, and famous concert hall and brings in annual revenues of more than 100 million crowns.

An hour long tour of the building costs 270CZK and gives you access to all sorts of halls and rooms that the general public cannot access.

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Museum of Communism

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Museum Ticket

The Prague Communism Museum is an experience in unintentional irony amidst the telling of a tragic story.   This museum looks at what Czech society and life was like under the Communist regime.  It does a remarkable job of telling the history of Communism in the Czech Republic and the process through which it became a satellite of the Soviet Union.

Inside the museum there are artifacts and pictures that interprets the history well and yes you can learn a lot about the history of the Czech Republic throughout its capital city, but the Museum of Communism is one of the few ways to learn about the people involved with the making of that history.

Prague Commmunist Museum

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Inside the museum

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A Grocery Store

A contemporary living room

A contemporary living room

Interestingly The Museum is situated in the middle of the main shopping district, next to a McDonald’s and in the same building as a casino.

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